Baptism

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Esther 5:1-14Acts 18:12-28Luke 3:15-22

Some of us remember our baptism.  For others we were too young, or it has faded from our memory.  I do not remember mine, but I have had the joy of standing in the Jordan River presiding at baptisms and reaffirmations of baptisms, experiencing joy and new chapters of following God.

Baptism is a fascinating sacrament.  In it we enter into a new life – into a new community.  In it, we also see our own death – a death to an old way of being.  Perhaps this is why at some funerals we talk about that person’s baptism “now being complete in death” – the transformation to a new way of being is now full and complete because the old way is completely gone.  In so many ways baptism is almost simplistic – common element of water used in a one-time washing.  And yet in another way baptism is a complete mystery – it is God at work revealing a new life that is emerging.

Today’s gospel reading speaks of baptism. In both Luke and Acts today we see the transformation from water to fire in preaching and in baptism.

In Acts, Paul is in Corinth.  This is a man who is continually in trouble with the law.  He is brought before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, who very much like Pilate for Jesus, renounces his own jurisdiction.  The Jews claim Paul is “persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.”  Gallio basically says so what, declaring he doesn’t want to be a judge of Jewish matters.  Paul does not repent of his new vows in Christ.

In our travels with Paul, we come across a Jew named Apollos.  He is eloquent and well-versed in the scriptures, burning with enthusiasm.  We are told that he “spoke accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.”  This basically means that he knew his Old Testament and the prophesies regarding the Messiah.  But he did not know of Jesus’ arrival.

Pricilla and Aquila pull him aside and “explained the Way of God more accurately.”  He becomes a great champion of the faith.

In Luke we hear the tale of the baptism of Jesus, as well as John’s proclamations about baptism.  “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Remember that Luke wrote both Luke and the book of Acts.  He very well may have in mind a connection here.  John speaks of water and fire.  He seems to know intrinsically that someone like Jesus is coming.  Apollos has the same ideas.  He knows a Messiah is coming.  He had been preaching that – with fire, although he knows not the name of Jesus.

Acts is a fantastical story.  It has mystery and intrigue.  It provides for this almost mysterious transformation and spreading of the gospel.  Like a good virus, there seems to be no way to stop this either.  Even Apollos knows what is coming, and he is from Alexandria.  It appears the good news will spread to all the ends of the earth.

What is interesting about Acts is that by the books end, it does not spread to the ends of the earth.  But yet, here we are reading this story in yet another corner of the globe.  By stories end, we ourselves are thrust into the story, left wondering, “So now it is your turn.  What’s next?”

Very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, we become a part of the story.

How does your baptism by fire and water affect the trajectory of your story?  What is your baptism driving you to do?

-Matt

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The Heart of the Matter

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Esther 4:4-17Acts 18:1-11Luke (1:1-4),3:1-14

Luke shares with us what he believes are the essential details about Jesus, the Messiah.  He is one of the few to articulate what his purpose in writing is: “So that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

Then with excruciating detail, Luke lets us in on the secret of who’s who and what’s what.  It is almost as if he is trying to prove that this is historical, rooting it in names and places.  It is if he is saying, “Who could make this up?”  It’s very different than the other gospels.

I find it interesting he wrote this for folks who had already been instructed in the faith.  It is as if the gospel text was pulled out after years coming to know Christ.  “Here, read this if you want to know even more.”  That is oral tradition at its best!

I wonder what people knew.  What had they seen and heard?  What is the essential truth to know about Jesus?

“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  Perhaps this is the heart of the Christian message.

If you have taken the Disciple I Bible study, you may remember how it starts.  It begins with a good hearty talk about the authority of scripture in our lives, and some of the different types of biblical literature and its purposes.  In it, we encounter John’s purpose: So that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  So many of the New Testament writers are wrestling with this very concept, and certainly Luke is wrestling with and responding to these questions as well: Where do the Jews fit in this?  How do Judaism and Christianity co-exist?

At the end of the day, Luke tells a great story.  And from the stories about John the Baptist to the miracles, to the tax collectors and sinners needing grace, to the time around the cross, we hear and see a consistent theme: God is coming, and when he does, ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.

These are reassuring words to the faithful.  You too will meet up with the Savior of the world – this Jesus.  And you too will be filled with the promise of a second chance.  It came to the tax collectors and sinners and now it comes to you.

-Matt

Lydia

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Job 40:1,41:1-11Acts 16:6-15John 12:9-19

Turn to Acts, and discover the story of Lydia today.

The conversion of Lydia is another powerful story about the women of the church.  Paul, Silas, and Timothy are making the rounds, stop in Philippi, and encounter Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.  “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.  When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”

This is a quick turn.  All we know about her worship life is that she is a “worshiper of God” which is a nice way of saying she is a Gentile who worshiped Israel’s God, somewhat of a stray by Jewish standards.

On the other hand, this is a Roman colony.  We are told of the “household of Lydia” which indicates she is unmarried.  She is also of relatively high social and economic status, being a merchant and mistress of a household, a combination that wouldn’t normally be possible in that day and time.  The district in Lydia, where she is from, Thyatira, is a center of production of purple dye, so it is possible she is the representative of all that is purple in this region, one of the top merchants in the area.  She seems to be quite a maverick.

I had the privilege of sitting in Philippi, down by the river, probably in a similar place to where Paul and Lydia met.  I am excited to go back in just a few weeks.  The Journeys of Paul Mediterranean Cruise.

What I remember most in Philippi was the most delightful open-air Greek restaurant, right on the sea.  The group that year included my mother and my friend Rose, both of whom are pretty adventurous eaters much like me.  We ordered a few things ala carte and dove into our food.  There was a strange ground up fish dish that tasted like heaven.  What was this glorious concoction?  Since the menu was in Greek, and I didn’t know a lot of the menu items, we had told our waiter to bring a few authentic dishes, his choice.  Turns out this great dish was octopus!  After my first encounter with eating octopus in Japan (which was a cold, raw trainwreck), I was amazed I could find any joy in this animal.  The Greeks made octopus tasty and delicious for me.

As I reflect back on my time in the city of Philippi, and Paul’s travels here – his ups and downs – I draw inspiration from people like Lydia.  She blazed a trail for the Gospel to spread, an outsider who found a place.  I remember feeling out of place in this beautiful country, probably like Lydia did at times, but enjoying the bounty of this area, ready to go back and tell the story of this beautiful land and the stories it held.

It was just a few verses ago we were told that Paul and Silas went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.”  Lydia, you see, was from Asia.  She has made her way to Philippi for commerce.

But lying underneath all this is a theme:  There are places where the Holy Spirit is ripe, and places it is not.  Since the word of God was not ripe for Asia, perhaps because of language or culture, Lydia becomes a lynchpin.  Rather than Asia opening to Paul and Silas, Asia has come to Paul and Silas.  Lydia, who ironically bares the same name of the region in Asia where Thyatira is, is a person who can “walk the walk and talk the talk” so to speak.  She can now be an ambassador to that region.

This too is a story of the unleashed good news.  God’s power is out on the loose.  And, once again, it is entrusted to a woman.  Those who want to believe that Paul and the New Testament are anti-women need a refresher course on Acts and Paul’s letters!  As Luke writes his two books, there is a movement: from Jewish men to Gentile women.  God’s word spreads more than just geographically.

For me that is such good news I can hardly contain myself!

-Matt

Hildegard of Bingen

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Hildegard of Bingen

Today is also the Feast Day of Hildegard of Bingen — if you are into that sort of thing.

I mean our Catholic and Episcopal brothers and sisters celebrate these feast days, and if you are feeling particularly ecumenical today, or if you are looking for a powerful example of women in the church, Hildegard may be the one for you!

She was certainly one of the most important women of her time, living in the 1100s.  I encourage you to click the link above and read about this powerful figure in church history.

It fits into our exploration of the Christian Mystics in our Thur Noon Bible Study too, in our ongoing quest to seek out female voices in our Church life.

Join me in prayer:

O God, by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. 

Extravagant Living

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Job 40:1-24Acts 15:36-16:5John 11:55-12:8

Very rarely do we see extravagance lifted up as a virtue in scripture.  Usually moderation is lifted up.  Today’s Gospel reading calls for extravagance – well a certain kind – God’s kind.

Mary is anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, wiping them with her hair.  Judas Iscariot asks a good question, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  Jesus responds with: “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might kept it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Judas Iscariot would be right any other day of the week, but today was different.  Today’s choice is extravagance over moderation.

I am reminded of one of our new hymns in our relatively new hymnal, the purple one.  There is a wonderful hymn called “Woman In the Night” that walks through all the different women in the gospels who impacted Jesus’ ministry.  One verse ends with “loved him with your hair” an obvious reference to Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.

Time and time again scripture calls us to live in opposite how the world wants us to live.  So often, especially in the midst of our economic woes, the temptation is to look inward, worry only about oneself, and bury one’s treasure.  Jesus says no.

We are challenged as Christians to live in opposition to the prevailing winds.  When others horde wealth, we are called to give it to the poor.  When others want to kill Jesus, we are called to honor him with extravagant gifts.  When the temptation is to worry about physical surroundings, we are called to invest our money in spiritual things, build relationships, and focus on people instead of buildings.

This is all very strange.  I know.  Trust me; I know.  I live in the conundrum of right living every day.  As someone who has given my life to the church, I find myself pondering these questions every day.

How does God want me to use my money?  How should I be using my time?  Should I give some money from the pastoral fund to the vagrant sleeping in the bushes, or should I wait and give it to a member who is buried in medical bills?

What I know of scripture is that we are called to live extravagantly, pouring out the life and soul of our lives for the one who poured out his.  It is not a question of either/or, but one of both/and.  We must live outwardly.  Always.

-Matt

Transition, Change, Hope

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Job 29:1-20Acts 14:1-18John 10:31-42

Many of you have heard the news:  I have been asked to become the next General Presbyter for Maumee Valley Presbytery.  And I have said yes.  Maumee Valley Presbytery is in NW Ohio and SE Michigan so it means a big change for me, for INP, and for FPC-Duncan.  I begin in Ohio on November 1.

Change is all around us.  In the gospel story today we see how something has changed in the lives of the disciples and that with Jesus, the incarnate God, something is rising from the ashes of extinguished hope to lift the people to a new kind of hope.

This is the great joy of the Christian journey!  While change may swirl all around us, the reality is that our hope rests in the same God who brought us into this life.  Through election cycles, new school routines, daily stresses of our jobs, God remains our Rock.

We must never forget that we are a resurrection people, called to new life, and new possibilities.   Lately I have sensed that some of us seem to have lost that fire and that spirit that we once had.  We must never forget that our lives are like that of the phoenix and that we have risen from the ashes to a new life.

Today is a new day.  Today is an exciting new beginning.  Our chance is now!  The world is at our doorstep hungry for change – hungry for a new breath of fresh air in this world of stale hope.  It is also the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  Today is not just about looking back and remembering, but looking forward and grabbing on to the same courage and working toward a brighter future.

We are a resurrection people.  We are called to bring that message of hope and light to a struggling world.

We don’t just read scripture, and then say “That’s nice” and put it down and never do anything with it.  Through it we can see beyond the grave – knowing that God is on our side and that the world has yet to see the greatest chapter.

With God on our side, the possibilities are endless.

-Matt

Let the Party Start

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Job 32:1-10,19-33:1,19-28Acts 13:44-52John 10:19-30

Themes are important.  They frame our time and help us grasp the big picture.  This weekend President Obama chimed in on what he thought the theme of these dark times is: INDIFFERENCE.  I have certainly seen the toll that apathy and indifference has taken in our country, leading to today.

If I had to pick just a one-word theme for the Bible it would be: GRACE.  Time and time again we see grace overflowing borders.  God is constantly challenging us to see grace spilling over into yet larger places and times.  Today’s New Testament readings are no exception.

In John, despite Jesus being rejected by the key leaders of the day, we clearly see him as a divine shepherd who knows his sheep and they know his voice.  We seem to have a blueprint before us to get to know his voice, and it is a passage of comfort and reassurance.

In Acts, (which if you hadn’t discovered is one of my favorite books) Paul and Barnabas have really ticked off the Jews.  It is the Sabbath and they are preaching to the Gentiles.  Sabbath preaching is certainly allowed, so what irritates the Jews is that they have drawn such a crowd that they were filled with jealousy and led to blaspheme on the Sabbath.  So in a way they are mad at themselves.

Paul and Barnabas use this against them.  They declare the Jewish rejection of the gospel as knit together with a gentile mission.  We see God’s word spilling over boundaries, over barriers that few thought possible.

Circumcision was seen as so key, there was no discussion for the Jews.  The Torah, as well, was seen as so central that it wasn’t even up for debate.  And here were people talking about those barriers coming down?  Who do they think they are?

This is the joy of the good news.  Time and time again we see God breaking the rules of humanity.  People say “No” and God says “Yes”.  People put up rules, and God knocks them down.

We see this so clearly even in our churches today.  Many churches have become obsessed with purity.  They seek rules in favor of God’s radical love.  They spend a lot of energy deciding who’s in and who’s out, failing to realize that from the beginning they were all “out” and God declared them “in”.

It is almost like the theme is the opposite of indifference, because God cares very much for this all-inclusive word of GRACE getting out.  God wants the party to begin and wants you to know you are invited.

My prayer is that we all wake up to the good news in our midst.  None of us deserve God’s “Yes”.  But God has made room for us at this grand banquet.  All we must do is realize a seat has been pulled up to this joyful feast for us.

Take a seat!  God’s party is just beginning!

-Matt